Theaster Gates: Freedom Of Assembly

© White Cube (Ben Westoby)

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Theaster Gates is about reactivation. A trained potter, urban planner, an artist, an intellectual, his is often called a ‘social practice’. In that capacity, his reactivation takes the form of shrewd financial turnaround: making and selling what could perhaps be termed a ‘domestic’ artwork – pottery, for example – and investing the money in a much bigger project; a social artwork. This could be the purchase of a decrepit and abandoned bank, to be repurposed into an arts-space-cum- community-centre, or the procurement of an entire collection of stock from a shop in liquidation: vinyl, books – to be installed in one of his other social projects as a library or listening room.

He also hoards “failed” materials, which he reactivates as sculpture, or painting. In his latest show, Freedom of Assembly, at the White Cube in Bermondsey, he exhibits works made from the residue of school gymnasium floors, a hardware shop. Elsewhere he converts authentically made, if practically redundant, sections of roof into paintings.

For an artist whose practice has been, up to now, largely politicised in some way – the Chicago-born Gates’ previous White Cube exhibition dealt extensively with civil- rights issues, both historical and ongoing – this latest show represents something of a shift in gear. Three rooms of the gallery are given over to his work. The first contains the aforementioned hardware store residue: giant orange brackets are mounted on the wall, a tall sculpture made from the shop’s display-case pegboard backing zig-zags up and disappears into the ceiling. Beside it, what looks like a section of roof, tiled in wood. Next door, Ground Rules: two paintings face one another. Made from sections of gym floor, they are warm and familiar. Geometrically arranged pieces of tape, red and black and formerly purposeful, interrupt the vertical lines of hardwood and introduce a discourse the artist has, thus far, not engaged with: art history, art about art.

The final, biggest room manifests most literally the ‘Assembly’ of the exhibition’s title. In a corner are huddled small humanoid figures; roughly made, they stand engaged more with each other than with the rest of the space’s contents. On the walls, huge abstracts emit a strong tar smell; in the middle, pots stand on rough wooden plinths, the wood certainly reclaimed from somewhere. Railway sleepers?

Aesthetic connections abound; in each room a link to another. Gates has built up a kind of tasteful nexus of clean abstract forms, an exhibition of works that look a lot like art. These links foreground certain discussions: engagement with modernist themes and ideas, questions about painting and sculpture, etc, etc.

In some ways this seems to be a show of dualities and of tension. Gates has inverted the MO, or the regular form of social art; instead of using visual art’s language and techniques to critique a social issue, he has used social issues – the residue of “educational catastrophe” – to join in an intellectual, art historical dialogue about painting, sculpture, material and modernism. In this sense he has reactivated the materials and objects with which he works in a very different way; the social issues become implicit, and the arty issues explicit. Freedom of Assembly becomes not an interrogation of political issues, the First Amendment, and all the problems that spring to mind when the liberal arty- fart thinks of America at the moment (at the time of writing the city of Baltimore is succumbing to what are, essentially, race riots after the murder of yet another African American youth at the hands of the PD) but rather becomes an exercise in material assembly, the studio/gallery discourse, and the narrative of objects.

© White Cube (Ben Westoby)

It is this latter theme that is the most interesting at play in the exhibition, and which suggests that the show is perhaps not such an exercise in self-indulgence as could be assumed from Gates’ enthusiastic rejection of “explicit” engagement with social issues, in the face of undoubtedly interesting but ‘Ivory Tower’ musings on modernism and all that.
During the Q&A at the press-viewing, Gates describes the act of exhibiting traditional African objects, “separate from their dance or effigy or ritual form. Separate from the makers, with no sense of who made the thing.” That exhibiting objects like this is a fundamentally hopeless challenge: “there’s no way that the mask can tell you enough if you don’t know who the maker was, what the rituals were. And that, that desire to divorce ritual and content from the mask, I think is one of the great challenges of the Western museum.”

In this context, Ground Rules suddenly vibrates with a kind of stifled narrative, a sense of something important being thrown into relief, made conspicuous via its absence. In repurposing, reloading these potent artifacts with an entirely other set of meanings, the latent thrums.

Similarly, the casualness with which the roofing material paintings – roofs – are exhibited in the main space belies their complex and loaded narrative of production, and the personal connection Gates has to it (his dad was a roofer). In this sense, in parts of the show almost feel like institutional critique; he has taken the socially potent and interpreted it into artspeak. It’s probably defensive of me to read into this a suggestion that this is almost an inverted dumbing down – that the artist is parsing important social issues into high-minded, bourgeois discussions.

Nonetheless, I have a distinct sense that the more interesting art is happening elsewhere. What we have at the White Cube is an assortment of works, in dialogue with themselves and with other
works that the White Cube and the White Cube visitors are interested in. In this case, paintings made from the gymnasium floors of closed public schools, paintings made from roofs, and sculptures made from the residue of a bankrupt hardware shop. Aesthetically and conceptually, these works add up to a successful and interesting exhibition, “sexy” objects, reactivated as art; a show that allows Gates to assert that “for the first time in [his] showing career, [he] feel[s] like [he] can say something like, ‘Just let the work speak for itself.’”

In Chicago, we have: 56 closed schools and a bankrupt hardware shop that has been bought by Gates, and is itself in the process of being defibrillated, resurrected, by an artist who gets “excited… trying to keep intact a neighbourhood’s commercial strip.” Who is “trying to figure out, in addition to the one or two things that [he] might pull out and take over to the White Cube, how can [he] keep the life that is within these buildings … present?”

In this sense, Freedom of Assembly feels a bit like a shadow; what we have access to constitutes almost a byproduct. It’s a sign of Gates’ abilities and quality as an artist, as well as the towering significance of what is casting the shadow in the first place, that despite the dilution of the explicit social themes, they remain potent in their quiescence.

Freedom of Assembly runs at White Cube Bermondsey until 5 July

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